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March 2022 GPS

The third commandment in God’s Ten Commandments reads, ““You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” (Exodus 20:7, ESV) What is being forbidden in this commandment? In order to answer this question, we need to know the meaning of, “the name of the LORD” in this context, as well as the meaning of, “take in vain”.  It would also be a good idea to know the reason why the penalty was attached to this command.

We will begin by examining the meaning of “the name of the LORD.” Jewish people have understood the word “name” to refer solely to the Hebrew term translated LORD (or Jehovah or Yahweh), which is sometimes referred to as the “Tetragrammaton” (four letter word). I believe that view is based upon two passages. First, as a part of God’s commission to Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt, “God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.” (Exodus 3:15, ESV). The second passage identifies the One who has spoken through Hosea: “Even the Lord, the God of hosts, The Lord is His name.” (Hosea 12:5, NASB95). I believe that more than just the name “LORD” is involved in this prohibition. In previous articles I have endeavored to demonstrate that God’s name is more than just what He is called. It is a revelation of His nature/character. In his commentary on Exodus, D.K. Stuart writes: “Yahweh’s name signified his essence.”In the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, W.C. Kaiser says: “The name of God also signifies the whole self-disclosure of God in his holiness and truth (Ps 22:22 [H 23]). This Name can be ‘walked in,’ i.e. people are to live according to its teaching (Mic 4:5). I believe His “name” in the context of the Ten Commandments denotes not only the way we use words like “God” or “Jesus Christ” but also the manner in which we think and speak of God, Himself.

What is the meaning of “in vain” in the context of the third commandment? The Hebrew word translated “vain”, is also translated with concepts like “false, empty, deceitful.” Because of their understanding of the meaning of the name of the LORD, devout Jews do not pronounce the Tetragrammaton or write it unnecessarily but substitute other terms in its place lest they violate the commandment.  Their respect for God’s name is certainly commendable but I do not believe their practice is what God had in mind. In the Old Testament Wordbook, V. P. Hamilton says the Hebrew word behind “vain” “designates anything that is unsubstantial, unreal, worthless, either materially or morally…. The evidence points to the fact that taking the Lord’s name (i.e. his reputation) ‘in vain’ will surely cover profanity, as that term is understood today, or swearing falsely in the Lord’s name. But it will also include using the Lord’s name lightly, unthinkingly, or by rote. Perhaps this is captured by the LXX’s [Greek] translation … as ‘thoughtlessly.’” In The Bible Knowledge Commentary, in the section on Deuteronomy, J. S. Deere writes:  “To misuse God’s name means literally, ‘to lift it up to or attach it to emptiness.’ This command forbids using God’s name in profanity but it includes more. The third commandment is a directive against using God’s name in a manipulative way (e.g., His name is not to be used in magic or to curse someone). Today a Christian who uses God’s name flippantly or falsely attributes a wrong act to God has broken this commandment.” The Protestant Reformers applied it especially to breaking oaths taken in His name. In his comments on the thrust of this prohibition, John Calvin wrote, “for in order that God may procure for His name its due reverence, He forbids its being taken in vain, especially in oaths.” When people say, “Jesus Christ” as an expression of surprise or anger without any real reference to Him, that is certainly taking His name in vain, unthinkingly.  The same can be said about the thoughtless exclamation, “Oh my God” when it is used flippantly.  In light of the meaning of “name” as noted above, any thoughts or expressions that treat God’s nature/character irreverently would seem to me to violate the intent of the third commandment.

What is the meaning behind the stated warning that concludes the commandment: “the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain”? Is that not true of all of the commandments? Of course it is! I think there are at least two reasons for the inclusion of this warning. First, it is so easy for us to allow words to come out of our mouths thoughtlessly. In our day, multitudes of people use the name of Jesus or say “God” without thinking about what they are saying. Second, even worse, is that such thoughtlessness when applied to the name of our Lord reveals what we actually think of Him, and that matters a great deal! We may think that such carelessness does not matter and thus deserves no punishment. God disagrees. Jesus Christ is the second Person of the Godhead who became flesh and bore the wrath of God in the place of sinners in order to redeem them. God is the mighty Creator in whose hand is the very breath we breathe and the next beat of our hearts. How we use those names is an indicator of the importance we place upon those persons. Jesus said, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12:34, ESV) What does the way we refer to God say about the place He holds in our hearts?